Dictatorship in Hungary Raises Serious Questions about EU and NATO Membership

Victor Orban, Hungarian Prime Minister, meeting Donald Tusk, former President of the European Council. Image used under Creative Commons License.

By Maxwell Lyster
Staff Writer

On March 30, the Hungarian Parliament voted 137 to 53 to give the autocratic, nationalist Prime Minister Victor Orbán the right to rule by decree indefinitely. The proposal was rammed through by his party, the Fidesz, which holds 117 of the 199 seats. While many other nations have given leaders excess power during the global pandemic, Hungary is different in the sense that Orbán can even cancel elections and suspend the enforcement of certain laws at his own discretion. He can also judge who is spreading misleading information and throw them in jail. Orbán has been given near-total control of Hungary for the foreseeable future. 

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EUROPEAN DEFENSE: IRREPARABLY BEHIND?

By: Brian Cox
Staff Writer  

It is fairly well known that NATO member states pledge to spend 2 percent of GDP on military expenditures. That being said, in 2012 only two European nations, Estonia and the United Kingdom, met this mark. While the defense climate in Europe has substantially changed between 2012 and the present, and there is currently a move to increase spending on the whole it has yet to be seen whether this movement is an immediate response to Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, or if this is part of a longer term trend. NATO defense spending during the cold war was significantly higher, due to the proximity of threat, but throughout the cold war the US still easily accounted for a plurality of worldwide defense spending, and had substantial amounts of assets throughout Europe. Following the Cold War, due to the policy of the peace dividend, the US decreased its military spending substantially. Nonetheless, the figure remained just below 4 percent. There was widespread academic discussion as to the ongoing role and requirements for the American military going forwards. The necessity of the US to fight a war on two fronts was questioned, and the need for some requisitions was put on hold. The number of B2 bombers purchased was sharply cut, and emphasis was put on preventing known hotspots, such as Bosnia and Iraq, from getting out of hand. This sort of analysis prevalent throughout the late 1990s foresaw neither an aggressive stance from Russia, nor the chain of conflicts in the Middle East and the Islamic State. By August 2003, after a long drawdown in military spending, the US and Western European nations were ready to increase defense spending, and did so. However, it has been noted that in general and increase in defense spending, is accompanied by long run public opinion that defense spending should be decreased (in the West). This holds true in the US as well, although US defense spending in real and relative terms grossly surpasses anything in Western Europe.

Members may aim to hit the 2 percent threshold for many reasons, but the two most common reasons are to avoid being seen as a free-rider, and attempting to defend itself because it feels under threat. This is well reflected by recent changes in military spending. France, which found itself the target of a large-scale terrorist attack, has maintained and slightly expanded its military budget for 2015, despite planning cuts to ameliorate its budget shortfalls. Other nations, such as Estonia and Latvia, have sharply increased their military spending, likely in part due to their proximity to Russia, in the wake of the seizing of Crimea. Such attempts to avoid looking like a free rider also depend on public perception in these nations. If the constituents of governments do not care about the ramifications of being seen as a free rider, the pressure to maintain higher levels of military spending are limited, and the population would prefer to reallocate this spending into other matters, such as social welfare or health care. Interestingly, a study found that on the whole publics do not care about being seen as a free rider, but do care when they perceive money is being over allocated into defense

US defense spending is much higher than European defense spending, and recently decided to increase military assets in Europe, citing a “new situation, in which Russia has become a more difficult actor.” With both NATO and the US concerned by Russia, it would be a reasonable question to ask what response has been taken. US military spending has remained relatively constant, although still makes up around half of global military expenditures, dwarfing that of Russia, or even the entire EU. The recent IAI (Instituto Affari Internazionali, or Institute for International Affairs of Italy) study does indicate that larger states have taken this into account, but many EU members such as Ireland are still spending under 1 percent of GDP. In general, the trend has been that those nations which are not under austerity are responding by increasing defense investment. That being said, nations under austerity see defense spending as the first part of the budget to cut, for reasons probably related to NATO and the United States. A cut in defense spending would not be seen as being independently dangerous, especially for a small nation whose defense budget is dwarfed by that of the United States, or even large European NATO members such as Germany. Though Germany is well-shy of 2 percent of GDP expenditures, its large GDP does mean that its net spending still dwarfs that of nations such as Latvia and Estonia which are meeting their 2 percent targets. This is not to say that the threshold does not improve defense capabilities in Europe. Austria, which is not a NATO nation, but can largely expect support from its neighbors, spends .7 percent of GDP on its military, largely under the assumption that other nations will defend it.

This discrepancy in defense spending between small and large states, as well as NATO and non-NATO members ultimately may account for this sort of extremely low defense spending. NATO members on the whole spend substantially more than their non-NATO counterparts.

More recently, however, we have seen European defense spending, especially among Eastern European states, spike. In 2014, the US, as well as France, Greece, Turkey, the UK and Estonia were at 2 percent, with Poland and Portugal just shy, and aiming for 2 percent. As the European economy slowly improves, and the threat of Russia is increasingly felt, more and more states are likely to increase spending, albeit slowly.

A large part of this US-Europe discrepancy could be attributed to the role of the military. After all, Hastings Ismay said the purpose of NATO was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” With 2 percent thresholds to keep the Americans in, a strong defense in the east to keep the Russians out, and a focus on UK and US military capabilities over German ones, this got NATO through the cold war. However, this paradigm no longer truly holds for Germany, and the Americans are increasingly looking elsewhere. The United States still wishes to be able to project its power abroad via its military. France, another nation which is above the 2 percent threshold has recently spoken of more direct intervention against IS, and invoked EU article 42.7, the “Mutual Defense” clause. This clause obligates EU states to provide aid and assistance, to any member of the EU which is the victim of “armed aggression on its territory”. This opened questions as to the scope of the clause’s requirements, but nonetheless marked the first invocation of this clause. Notably, this is shy of invoking Article 5, the mutual self-defense clause in NATO, which has only been invoked once, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

With much of Europe satisfied with security, and existing treaties and frameworks (such as NATO article 5) guaranteeing them defense against foreign aggression, the need for a strong defensive force is limited.  While the merits of a military capable of foreign interventions and power projection mixed, military spending by the US certainly produces positive externalities for Western European states with much lower defense spending, but much higher spending on social welfare. While the EU does benefit from American military capabilities, the US doesn’t benefit directly from European social welfare. Largely to this end, the US has been placing increasing pressure on Germany to increase its military spending, and succeeded in early 2016, when Angela Merkel asked for a substantial increase to German military spendingMany sources reported that it was largely due to american pressure that this request for an increase in military spending was submitted. Nonetheless, a 4 percent increase to existing German defense spending is a drop in the bucket. This event shows just how long of a road it will be for the EU to rebuild a capable military, not reliant on an increasingly spread US military. While it’s unlikely that the US will abandon its allies, its increasing pivot to Asia will likely lessen its ability to protect Western Europe. Should this happen, how capable will Europe be of defending itself from Russia, or other external threats? If the reluctance of European leaders to increase defense spending is indicative, the security situation in Europe could remain poor for many years to come.

Image by NATO Summit Wales 2014

THE BEAR POKES BACK: RUSSIA, ABKHAZIA, AND NATO HEADACHES

Abkhazian People Wave the Flag of Abkhazia

By Matthew Brown
Staff Writer

On Nov. 24, 2014, Russia and Abkhazia signed a historic cooperation treaty, accomplishing yet another fait accompli that NATO and its allies seem unable to answer. The “Agreement Between the Russian Federation and the Republic of Abkhazia on Alliance and Integration” formalizes Russia’s security and economic partnership with the breakaway region of Abkhazia. It is set to run for 10 years with the hopes to extend it for a further five years after that. The most significant aspects of this treaty include: Russian and Abkhaz military assets in the region will merge into a joint security force led by a Russian commander; a common security agreement between Russia and Abkhazia (i.e. an attack on one will be considered an attack on the other); a substantial increase in Russian economic aid to Abkhazia to the tune of 12 billion rubles ($222 million); a commitment on Russia’s part to acquire international recognition for Abkhazia; and a streamlined process towards Russian citizenship for Abkhazian residents. It should be clear from the depth of these commitments that Russia is committed to the continued security and development of the Abkhazian state and pays little regard to Georgian and Western objections. The Balkanization of Georgia is a key part of Russia’s foreign policy in the region and Abkhazia is likely only the first step in this process; the breakaway region of South Ossetia is rumored to be in talks to sign a similar treaty with Russia in the near future. Western interests will now have a much more difficult time reconstituting the former borders of Georgia.

Abkhazia has existed in an unacknowledged, twilight state of affairs since its violent beginning. Formally recognized only by Russia and under pressure from NATO to rejoin the nation of Georgia, uncertainty has been the defining theme for the decades-old nation of Abkhazia. The roots of this limbo grow from the chaotic dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. It was with the final collapse of the Soviet Union that allowed for the ethnic Georgians to create their own nation, but in the years leading up to the collapse, the ethnic Abkhaz people began agitating against the state of Georgia’s calls for independence, correctly fearing that a Georgian state would seek to absorb the weaker Abkhazian region. The key port city of Sukhumi and valuable transit routes to Turkey and beyond would be a great boon for the fledgling Georgian nation. The ethnic Abkhazian and Ossetian populations, along with their territory, were ultimately ceded to the Georgian nation by the Soviet Union, creating an uneasy coexistence. The establishment of a joint power sharing agreement with the Abkhaz people temporarily defused tensions. Unfortunately, hardline ethnic Georgian politicians eroded Abkhazian representation and the situation deteriorated, ultimately culminating with the Georgian invasion of Sukhumi and subsequent ethnically motivated pillaging, rape, and murder. The 1992-93 War in Abkhazia followed, and, with Russian support, Abkhazia achieved de facto independence from Georgia but failed to gain widespread international recognition. Russian troops have been stationed along the borders ever since and Russian economic aid has become essential for the nation’s continued existence. Indeed, the closeness of the ties between these regions is demonstrated by the fact that 90 percent of all Abkhazian citizens hold a Russian passport. In more recent times, Georgia has been dissuaded from uniting these regions by force. The disastrous outcome of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 proved that Georgia does not have the military capacity to reconquer its lost territory, and that it cannot expect NATO forces to come to their aid.

Returning to the recent strategic partnership, Georgian opinions on the new treaty are, as to be expected, negative. For Georgia this treaty is hardly unexpected, yet a catastrophe all the same. The terms of the treaty greatly strengthen Abkhazia’s security position vis-á-vis Georgia and will give Abkhazia little reason to return to negotiations on reunification with Georgia. The economic and political benefits Russian extends in this treaty provide boons that Georgia cannot hope to match at the negotiation table. For now, Georgia will have to accept a Russian victory. While not a formal annexation, as with Crimea earlier this year, Russia now has de facto control of the Abkhaz territory, along with Abkhazia’s warm water port on the Black Sea in Sukhumi. A cursory glance at a map of the region will show that Russia is now in the enviable position of exerting control over a good third of the Black Sea coastline. In addition to this territorial gain, Russia makes further headway in solidifying transit routes for goods traded through the Eurasian Economic Union. None of these gains will play out in favor of NATO or the EU; this treaty can represent nothing other than a strategic defeat in both the political and economic arenas of the South Caucasus.

In the West, news of these developments has been largely ignored. After all, one does not enjoy relaying news of their defeat. Hesitant steps towards rebalancing the situation have been taken though. The official U.S. response has been twofold. On the political front, the U.S. State Department has issued press releases reiterating their position that the U.S. does not recognize Abkhazia as a sovereign state and therefore does not recognize any treaties between it and Russia. Beyond reinforcing the historic position of the U.S. in relation to Abkhazia’s situation, these communiqués accomplish little else. The military response has been more discreet, yet potentially more substantial. It has been reported that U.S. military officials are engaging in talks with the Georgian Defense Ministry with the aim to procure greater numbers of weapons and advanced capabilities for the Georgian Army. Georgia has long sought to obtain lethal anti-air and anti-tank capabilities from the U.S., while the U.S. has been reluctant to encourage further military conflict in the region at the risk of provoking a forceful response from the Kremlin. However, the deterioration of Georgia’s strategic position in the region may just be the event needed to make the U.S. relent.

What does the future hold for the region as a consequence of this treaty? The most immediate and likely development will be the signing of a similar treaty between Russia and South Ossetia. Russia cannot help but notice the lack of a significant response from the U.S. or Europe and will be emboldened to press their advantage. Further down the line, treaties such as this one will possibly pave the way for greater economic development in the Eurasian Economic Union. Russia is determined to connect Iranian energy and industrial exports to Eurasian and European markets. One of Russia’s most important projects in this regard involves the construction of railways linking the Caucasus and Iran with Turkey. Routes going through Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia, Armenia, and Turkey are all in various stages of planning. Yet many of these routes face a common obstacle; Georgia’s refusal to finalize approval for projects crossing through its territory. If Russia can succeed in forcing Georgia to capitulate on this position, either through utilizing the threats of losing Abkhazia and South Ossetia or through further Balkanization, Russia will achieve a significant economic objective in the greater Central Asian region.

Image by Apsuwara